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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Stand finds more solid ground in “Pocket Savior”

Illustration for article titled The Stand finds more solid ground in “Pocket Savior”
Image: The Stand
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In its second episode, The Stand once again bounces between past and present, introducing even more characters to the swollen spread of apocalypse survivors. It pulls the thread back to the past to pick up some new folks, namely Larry Underwood, who like Harold in the pilot seems to be the primary focus, before threading them back into the present to link up with some of the characters we’ve already met. As a whole, the episode is much stronger than the pilot even as some of the overarching problems—like the hastiness with which the show has to develop these characters operating under the confines of a limited series—persist.

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So let’s start with Larry. As with Franny and Stu in the first episode, Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo) has to sort of be boiled down to his true essence for the sake of the series. He comes off as an even worse guy in the show than he does in the book due to some of these character development shortcuts, but it’s ultimately effective. Unlike perfect action hero Stu and self-obsessed brooding villain Harold, Larry exists somewhere between good and evil. He’s talented and charming but undeniably selfish and reckless. He travels toward Boulder with two different women—first Rita Blakemoor (Heather Graham), who he has a hot and heavy post-apocalyptic romance with. But Larry seems torn between helping Rita safely get out of New York City and fending for himself. He’s not an overt threat to her in the way a group of men they cross paths with are, but he also seems relieved when she tries to separate ways with him. After all, not long before it happens, he watches an old friend die of the plague and then steals his drug supply.

Larry is indeed one of the more nuanced characters we’ve met on this journey so far. After Rita, he later travels with a mysterious woman named Nadine (Amber Heard), who has also taken to a little boy named Joe who doesn’t talk but who regards Harold with a suspicious eye when they arrive in Boulder. For now, The Stand leaves some gaps as to how Larry goes from traveling with Rita to traveling with Nadine, and unfortunately those gaps also mean that neither woman is as developed or specific as the man they’re traveling with, which already seems to be an ongoing problem with The Stand. But it’s pretty clear that something goes very wrong with Rita and that Nadine is hiding something upon her arrival in Boulder. We do literally see her hiding something earlier in the episode: a stone like the one Harold receives at the end of the pilot.

Larry’s arc in the episode works well, particularly because Adepo gives a commanding performance. There are more emotional stakes at play in “Pocket Savior” than in the pilot, and it’s fascinating to watch Larry navigate the muddy waters of an apocalypse as someone who didn’t seem to care much about others in his previous life but who also wasn’t full-on baddie. He was just kind of a jerk, and that’s a hard habit to shake.

“Pocket Savior” also packs in some genuinely frightening sequences. The men who try to offer Larry one million dollars in exchange for Rita are terrifying in what they represent: the fact that the end of the world will likely bring out the worst in people. Not everyone is in this together. In the pilot, Harold and Franny sharply diverge in how they respond to mass grief. Harold sees it as a fresh opportunity to become the protagonist of his own narrative, and Franny breaks down with hopelessness. In “Pocket Savior,” we see Larry wrestle between self preservation and caretaking. He’s haunted by his own mother, who died a nasty and impersonal death surrounded by hundreds gasping for breath and oozing in the hospital. When Larry makes his way through the New York underground—a very good and scary horror sequence—he sees her floating by. Paralyzed by fear, he’s helpless to do anything. A lot of these realizations have to happen faster and with a little more heavy-handedness than they do for Larry in the book, but in this case, it remains meaningful and compelling even in its distillation.

Then on the other side of the country and offering a perspective that skews more toward the idea that an apocalypse will bring out the worst in some, we have Lloyd Henreid. Played with a surprising dollop of humor by Nat Wolff, Lloyd is a prison inmate whose first declaration is that he was framed. Smash-cut to the supposed framing, which looks more like Lloyd was a bad guy who got caught up with a more chaotic bad guy. He survived the unexpected shootout, but he got caught, and now he’s stuck in prison while everyone dies around him and the guards offer nothing by way of help or sympathy—an all too real horror that plays out with an over-the-top Western feel to it on the show but also eerily evokes the atrocious treatment of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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But in any case, Lloyd isn’t really the guy you root for, and yet, The Stand makes you want to root for him at least a little bit. Or, more accurately, The Stand does an impressive job of situating us in Lloyd’s perspective. He’s so desperate to escape that we want him to, too. He spirals through immense paranoia and desperation as he’s locked in a cell and everything around him dies. As with the Larry scene in the swampy tunnel, it’s suffocating and unnerving, a hyper-zoomed in look at the horror of a sudden plague. And then in struts Lloyd’s savior, the strange man in a jean jacket and boots played by Alexander Skarsgård. He isn’t such a kind savior though, toying with Lloyd like a cat with a dying animal. There are just enough hints that Lloyd probably sampled a part of his cell mate’s leg at the height of his starvation, and the fact that it’s a scene left unseen makes it actually more effective horror than if we were to see him in the act. Lloyd does get out but only after pledging his life to this grinning man who has powers of some sort. It’s a foreboding pledge even if you don’t know what’s coming for Lloyd.

And that’s another reason why “Pocket Savior” hits a little harder than The Stand’s sprawling and middling pilot. The narrative hand-holding that happens for viewers less familiar with the book feels a little less overtly like hand-holding. The characters pop a little more, and the pieces click into place: This is a story about the choices different people make at the end of the world, and those choices often have immediate consequences. It’s a high-stakes strategy game. It’s also a fun installment for The Stand’s built-in fans. Skarsgård in particular does not disappoint. And there’s a deft mix of humor, horror, and heart at play.

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The Stand still struggles a bit with its own sprawl, and there’s still a lot left to be desired in terms of character development for the women in the ensemble. But “Pocket Savior” grounds its big plague story in specific, zoomed-in character moments that have real and personal stakes to them. Larry and Lloyd are very different characters, and it’s fascinating to watch the different ways people are forced to confront fears as well as moral choices at the end of the world. The simplest scenarios in the episode are its most effectively scary. Just a man in a cell with nothing to eat and no one to hear him. Just a man wading through the underlit underbelly of New York among the rats and his regrets. The Stand does its best work on its story, genre, tone, and character fronts when it’s stripped down to these straightforward but immersive bits.


Stray observations

  • As a reminder, this is where I’ll do most of the book talk, and there will occasionally be spoilers so read at your own risk and try to be respectful about labeling spoilers in the comments.
  • Ralph Brentner becomes Ray Brentner, played by Irene Bedard. It’s a change I’m into!
  • Randall Flagg messes with Lloyd’s head even more in the book, but I found the scene here to be equally effective and darkly funny in the same way it is in the book.
  • I also think the series is effective in its rendering of how Larry’s expectations do not line up with the reality of who Harold Lauder is. That’s such a fun part in the book, but it also needles into the idea that people’s perceptions of others can be completely skewed, and I think that becomes especially true in a high-stakes situation like the end of the world. Larry wants to find Harold Lauder and Frannie Goldsmith living out a quaint life together in Boulder—perhaps a narrative he concocted on his own long journey. But the end of the world is unpredictable and isolating, and it’s hard to really know anyone even when you share an experience as significant as surviving a plague.
  • Nick Andros is technically introduced in the episode but only for a brief moment.
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